The University of Washington, with more than 52,000 students on three campuses, transitions to remote learning on March 9, 2020.

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 6/16/2020
  • Essay 21055
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On March 9, 2020, with two weeks left in the winter quarter, the University of Washington moves to hold all classes online to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. More than 52,000 students, along with faculty and staff on three campuses (Seattle, Tacoma, and Bothell) are affected. The university is believed to be the first major institution of higher education in the nation to transition to all-online instruction. By March 11, more than 100 universities and colleges around the country follow suit. Less than two weeks later, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, UW president Ana Mari Cauce announces her decision to continue all-remote learning for the upcoming spring quarter as well. On June 13, 2020, the UW's graduating class is the first in school history to participate in a live virtual graduation ceremony.

UW Leadership Monitors Crisis 

In February 2020, UW president Ana Mari Cauce (b. 1956) announced to the university community that her leadership team was monitoring reports on the coronavirus pandemic and working with regional public health officials to determine how best to protect the well-being of students, faculty, and staff. On February 4, 2020, the university restricted all official travel to China; personal travel was not affected.

The first UW employee tested positive for COVID-19 on March 6, 2020. On March 12, a graduate student tested positive, and the next day an undergraduate student received the same diagnosis. In late March, a first university professor died of the virus. As of May 31, 2020, a total of 69 students, faculty, and staff across three UW campuses had tested positive for COVID-19.

Most university employees who were able to work from home were already doing so by the time new guidelines were announced on March 25 by Washington Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951). In a March 25 staff-wide communication, Cauce announced that teleworking was no longer just encouraged but was now mandatory. In addition, "mission critical research as well as essential functions to serve and protect students who still reside on campus will continue. Supervisors, principal investigators, and facility managers will receive additional guidance today about what this new directive means for critical employees as well as the operations of labs and research. And of course, our heroic frontline health care providers and the vital staff members who support them will continue their work enabling the testing, treatment, and research needed to fight this pandemic and meet the critical health care needs that occur in ordinary times" ("Impact of New ...").

Communications about the pandemic and the University's response were issued regularly from Cauce and Mark Richards, UW provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. These emails and blog posts emphasized the need to avoid stigmatizing, stereotyping, or perpetuating racism because the disease was associated with a particular country and people. Members of the university were encouraged to remain open and supportive to friends, colleagues and classmates, offering empathy and understanding to those who might contract the virus.

Quick Pivot to Remote Learning

On March 6, 2020, with two weeks left in the winter quarter, Cauce announced that the remainder of the quarter's classes and finals would be held remotely, beginning Monday, March 9. She expressed hope that in-person classes could resume on March 30, when the spring quarter began. But as the coronavirus infection rates continued to rise, the UW decided on March 18 to continue offering all classes online throughout the spring quarter, which ran from March 30 to June 12. In her announcement, Cauce said virtual classes offered "the best course of action for reducing uncertainty and anxiety and establishing a reliable, high-quality method of instruction and academic progress for UW through the spring" ("UW Spring Quarter Classes ...").

The University of Washington had recent experience with remote instruction. When a snowstorm abruptly canceled classes in 2019, many faculty members shifted to remote learning. Although that effort showed online instruction could be done efficiently, school officials quickly had to scale up and ensure that the appropriate technology, training, and staffing were in place to handle the heightened demand during the pandemic. Of the approximately 7,000 courses typically offered during spring quarter, only 400 were canceled after two weeks, and about 200 classes were added. At the start of the spring quarter, 52,845 students had registered for at least one course. Two weeks later, 930 students had withdrawn, compared with 600 students who had withdrawn during the same time frame in 2019.

Innovation to the Rescue

UW instructors took a variety of approaches to ensure classes could be taught online. Associate professor Laura Prugh with the College of the Environment teaches a wildlife research techniques class every spring in which students spend time outdoors, handling frogs and salamanders and using equipment to track animal populations. After an initial "mourning period" (McQuate), Prugh mailed each student a kit with a camera trap, acoustic recorder, compass, and binoculars. Students were able to use the gear on their own to complete indoor research projects at home.

Geologist Terry Swanson opted to livestream his lectures, saying that "students learn better when [a teacher] can appear more human on camera, sometimes correcting himself if he makes a mistake live" (McQuate). 

Some classes were more difficult to transition online, such as science labs in which hands-on experiences are a critical component. A chemistry lecturer developed a virtual tour of his lab, showing each item and what it does, along with photos, videos, and an explanation of lab safety. Students received a dataset generated from the previous quarter's lab to work through their assignments. The lecturer selected real data because "it will have common errors that people often see in these experiments, and these students will have to explain what might have happened. We've tried to keep this as realistic as possible" (McQuate).

The School of Social Work transitioned from one online class to 60 online classes in just a few days. School leadership hired remote-teaching consultants, hosted instructor meetings, and conducted a survey to gauge faculty and student response to learning remotely. A student emergency fund was established in record time to support students who were hard hit financially from the loss of a part-time job, increased food and housing insecurities, or personal and family challenges.  

Critical university support services around mental health, food and housing concerns, suicide prevention, and wellness remained open. Housing and food services were available to students, both domestic and international, who were unable or chose not to return to their hometowns during the spring quarter.

Essential Research Continues

As of 2019, the UW was ranked No. 2 among U.S. public institutions for its research and scholarship. When the stay-at-home directive took effect, most faculty, staff, and postdoctoral researchers were asked to work from home. Individuals who performed essential research were allowed to continue as long as they implemented safety measures, such as social distancing, using personal protective equipment, and decontaminating equipment and surfaces. The university's research guidelines, issued early in the pandemic, made the UW a model for other institutions nationwide.

Mary Lidstrom, UW vice provost for research, explained further. "The university ... allowed certain essential research to continue. This included all COVID-19 research, which was cast quite broadly; biomedical and public health research; long-term experiments; work needed to maintain equipment or for animal care; and research that graduate students needed to complete their degrees by the end of the school year ... Many research-related activities continued remotely: data analysis, group meetings, seminars, preparing manuscripts and proposals, online trainings, even remote data collection -- like in astronomy. … We also paused most research with human subjects and field research" (Urton).

Graduation Goes Virtual 

The 2020 graduating class participated in a live, interactive, virtual graduation ceremony, held on June 13, 2020. Close to 18,000 degrees were awarded across all three campuses. The event was viewed by students, families, and friends in 40 countries and the proceedings were available in nine languages. Students could submit a photo of their choice along with a comment, quote, or memory, which was then incorporated into the webcast. The 2020 graduates had the option to return to campus in June 2021 for a more traditional graduation experience at Husky Stadium, public health guidelines permitting. 

Next: Governor Jay Inslee orders a statewide school closure on March 13, 2020. 


Mike Baker et al, "First U.S. Colleges Close Classrooms as Virus Spreads. More Could Follow," The New York Times, March 6, 2020 (; Susan Svriuga, "Two Colleges Close, Another Cancels Classes and Others Brace for Coronavirus Impact on Campus," The Washington Post, March 6, 2020 (; Chris Quintana, "College Closings: More than 100 Colleges Cancel In-Person Classes and Move Online, USA Today, March 11, 2020 (; Ana Mari Cauce, "UW Spring Quarter Classes Will be Held Remotely (Message to Students)," March 18, 2020 (; Ana Mari Cauce, "Impact of New COVID-19 Measures on UW Operations," March 25, 2020 (; Victor Balta, "UW Announces Commencement Ceremony Via Webcast…," UW News, April 8, 2020 (; Sarah McQuate, "Hands-on Classes Online? How Some Instructors are Adapting to a New Teaching Environment," UW News, April 16, 2020 (; James Urton, "UW Guidelines Helping to Ramp Up Research Safely During COVID-19," UW News, June 4, 2020 (



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